Opinion, by Michael Royster
RIO DE JANEIRO – Last June, the Mayor of Rio announced he wanted to turn Avenida Rio Branco into a pedestrian mall and eliminate ALL motor vehicles from downtown on a Saturday. That didn’t happen. Nothing daunted, Hizzoner announced last week that on Wednesday, September 22nd he’s going to ban curbside parking downtown, in honor of World Carfree Day.
The ban doesn’t say you can’t drive downtown; it just says that you can’t park your car on any street within a roughly square area whose perimeter is defined by four main Avenidas: Presidente Vargas, Santa Luzia, Rio Branco and Primeiro de Março. This year’s no parking zone is about twice the size of last year’s, when Rio first adhered to Carfree Day.
The Rio Mayor is serious about the environment; he’s set goals to reduce greenhouse gas levels in Rio by twenty percent over the next ten years. He’s been encouraging people to ride bicycles to work and play rather than driving. On Carfree Day, there will be rent-a-bike and park-a-bike facilities located on the outskirts of the Quad.
The number of dedicated bicycle paths has grown, and he has begun “Zona 30”, a plan that sets a speed limit of only 30km per hour in certain parts of town, so as to foster peaceful co-existence between motorists and cyclists. The Mayor’s vision of the future Rio resembles Copenhagen or Amsterdam, where thousands of people pedal to work.
Unfortunately, the Curmudgeon submits, bicycling to work will never take root in Rio de Janeiro, for the following reasons.
First, the heat! Except in the dead of winter, you cannot pedal a bicycle for more than thirty seconds in Rio heat without sweating profusely. People who have to work around other people in shops and offices will not be welcomed when they have sweat stains on their clothes.
Second, the fashion! Most people who work downtown are expected to be well dressed. The concept of pedaling in sneakers and gym clothes, carrying dresses and heels in a backpack, is completely foreign to Carioca womanhood. Every Friday, hordes of women come downtown already dressed to the nines, because after work they’re going out for Happy Hour.
Third, the risk! All the rent-a-bike places opened so far have had to shut down, because of theft. Unless you have several industrial strength locks and chains on your bike, when you leave work in the evening your bike will not be where you stored it that morning.
Fourth, the rudeness! Drivers of bus, truck, car and motorcycle are not going to crawl along at 30km per hour just because of a street sign, nor are they going to avoid swerving into or parking in the lane reserved for bicycles whenever they feel the urge.
In fairness to drivers of motorized vehicles, the Curmudgeon will remind readers of the lack of manners (or even caution) of Carioca cyclists. They don’t signal before turning, they don’t warn pedestrians they’re coming up behind them, they don’t obey street signs, they don’t use lights or reflectors after dark, and they ride (and park) their bikes on sidewalks, rather than in the streets.
They prefer to ride against the traffic, increasing geometrically the odds of hitting pedestrians and incurring serious injury when they strike oncoming motor vehicles (or vice versa). For those who think this only happens in Rio, please check out this article from the New York Times last week.